Top 10 Bass Riffs of the '90s

Alice in Chains, Green Day and more go deep

How low could riffs go in the 1990s? Practically subterranean. That’s one of the instantly recognizable traits of a classic ’90s Rock song: the incredible bass in your face. People such as Flea, D'Arcy and other one-named wonders were just as popular as their band's singers. Let’s recount the highest of the lows here, with a mix of grunge, funk and power pop for your four-string pleasure.


Into the flood of sinister sounds we went with Seattle stalwarts Alice in Chains. Originally appearing on the seminal soundtrack for in 1992, the throbbing number was penned by guitarist Jerry Cantrell as an ode to the late Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood. Mike Starr’s bass line sounds like the slithering coil of the dragon that is heroin, which claimed Wood’s life in 1990. The drug would also contribute to the untimely death of Chains front man Layne Staley in 2002.


It doesn’t get any simpler than this No. 1 Modern Rock track from 1995. Tom Drummond manned the four-string in a joyous way, circling around the G-note home base as Kevin Griffin was “looking around the house.” “Good” is one of those sunshine-y songs in which it’s more fun to sing along with the bass than the actual lyrics. (Well, except Griffin’s curious “Ooh-wah-uh!” that introduces the chorus.)

Blur -

The rubbery, druggy pogo of the bass on this Britpop anthem by Blur fit like a glove. Alex James dragged his instrument onto the metaphorical dance floor and gave it a slippery, sexy persona. It complemented the hedonistic electricity of Damon Albarn’s words of pansexual exploration. It rocked; it sashayed; it was the embodiment of “Love in the ’90s,” as the lyrics went.

The Breeders - "Cannonball"


There are plenty of elements that made this groovy alt-rock number such a splash: the playful “Ahhh-wooos” howled by Kim Deal, the tinkling drum hardware intro by Jim Macpherson… But it was the abrupt bass courtesy of Josephine Wiggs that really ensnared ears. It darted in at first, with a bend and a frantic tussle. Then, it became a jellied yet sturdy backbone of Last Splash’s most memorable offering.

Green Day - "Longview"

Green Day Dookie

An ode to the lazy, stoned early days of the Bay Area punk trio, “Longview” featured a gurgling, impressive bass line by Mike Dirnt. While Billie Joe Armstrong mumbled about chronic boredom, his band mate went for a marathon walk around the fretboard. Funny enough, it was another drug – LSD – that inspired Dirnt to create the now-vetted riff.

Offspring -
Representing the nervous energy of a “ sucker with no self-esteem,” Greg Kriesel’s bass line on this 1994 mega-hit deserves its spot here. It bottoms out just as the song’s narrator swallows his pride about bedding a manipulative woman. It’s as though the dweeb’s heart is pumping double-time, pondering the innate fight-or-flight mechanism. Kriesel’s work adds a layer of humility as Dexter Holland crows and Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman scratches his guitar in fits of rage.

Frankly, we could have chosen any entry by the great Les Claypool, but this 1991 spazzing story about a speed demon earns top honors. The prime Primus player tweaks his bass so that it sounds like dial tones, done so with the rush of his finger tapping. It almost sounds jazzy in its complexity. Claypool took this same strategy to the South Park theme song six years later.

Warner Bros.

We’ve been tallying the best bass lines in this list, but this entire song belongs to bassist Flea. From the 1-2-3-4 droning intro to the oriental warble of the pre-verse, the quad-string maven also known as Michael Balzary can’t be stopped. He’s game for whatever journey Anthony Kiedis takes him on in the lyrics. The Swiss fountains, a jaunt to California, a trip to Sicily— no challenge is too big for the mighty Flea.

Smashing Pumpkins Gish

This combative bass line was likely one of the reasons Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins got lumped into the grunge scene in 1991. The slinky delivery by D’Arcy Wretsky melted mosh pits and kept pace while Billy Corgan, James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin hammered away at their guitars and drums. Wretsky was once referred to as the mother hen of the Pumpkins; in “I Am One,” she was the glue that held it all together.

Weezer - "Only in Dreams"


One of this power-pop group’s most epic tracks also showcases a most-epic bass line. Matt Sharp’s notes emulate the shy protagonist’s trudge up to his crush, asking her to dance. It’s slightly determined, slightly unsteady but truly empowering. When the song later erupts into Rivers Cuomo’s volcanic vocals and guitar squeals, Sharp lays the foundation, insisting that a lick this good isn’t just found in dreams.